Friday, March 17, 2006

Edward Gough Whitlam

I met one of my heroes today.

It is not every day one can say that.

I arranged to meet my friend Liz today for lunch. I met Liz when I started working at ANZ Trustees many moons ago. Liz is one of those people you meet in life and are eternally gratful that you did. Liz gave me the self-belief I lacked at 23 and mentored me through the next 10 years of my career. She is a wonderful woman. While she is one of my heroes, she is not the hero I speak of now.

I was waiting for Liz in an old Melbourne institution called, Pelligrinis. Being the coffee snob that I am it embarasses me to remember my first Pellegrinis experience. Liz took me there for pasta and coffee one day when I was still buying my coffee from McDonalds. (Yes, I know. Forgive me for I was once young and stupid. We sat down and I mentioned quietly to Liz that I'd never been to Pellegrinis before. Well, Liz thought that was hilarious and although quite diminutive she managed to alert the entire place that I was a Pellegrinis Virgin. Thank you and good night...

So, roll forward to today I am waiting for Liz as the place is quickly filling up. I nabbed 2 stools along the back counter and order a latte. Sisto, the owner, is rushing around in a flap and I over hear him say When he was Prime Minister he used to stand here and drink his coffee. Today he is 80 something so I need to seat him at the table in the back! My ears pricked up and my brain whirred into action and deduced that the only person he could be speaking about, in fact, the only person who would illicit such a reaction in an Italian cafe owner in Melbourne, was Gough Whitlam.

I admire and respect Gough for many things. He was a dynamic man who, in my everso humble opinion, in the early 70's, dragged Australia from a the backwater, small-minded, post war colony that was still entwined in England's apron strings into the stirrings of a nation in its own right.

He introduced free Univeristy education for he felt that a student's merit rather than a parent's wealth should decide who should benefit from the community's vast financial commitment to tertiary education. And more, it's time to strike a blow for the ideal that education should be free.

Many baby boomers benefited from a free university education and no doubt, payed through their noses for their children's university education as the next conservative government, unsurprisingly reversed Gough's policy and re-enstated fees which are in place to this day. Shamefully the next Labour government did not reverse that policy, or many others that the Whitlam government had tried to push through in the early 70's.

He abolished conscription and dropped Australia's controversial White Australia Policy and to be honest, if that was all he managed to do I'd still applaud him. Vile piece of legislation, that.

These are a few of the Whitlam government's other accomplishments;

* established formal diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China;
* cut tariffs across the board by 25% and abolished the Tariff Board;
* established the Schools Commission to distribute Federal funds to assist non-government schools on a needs basis;
* introduced a supporting benefit for single-parent families;
* abolished the death penalty for Federal crimes;
* reduced the voting age to 18 years;
* introduced language programs for non-English speaking Australians;
* mandated equal opportunities for women in Federal Government employment;
* appointed women to judicial and administrative positions;
* set up the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee;
* amalgamated the five separate defence departments;
* instituted direct federal grants to local governments; and
* established the Order of Australia, Australia's own honours system.

Not bad eh?

When I think of Gough I find the story of Vincent Lingiari is the first story comes to mind. Vincent Lingiari was an aboriginal rights activist whose plight got the attention of the Whitlam Government and in 1975, after a 7 year struggle, the Commonwealth Land Rights act was passed.

This was the first time indigenous Australians were recognised as the true owners of ancestral land and gave them freehold title to traditional lands in the Northern Territory and, significantly, the power of veto over mining and development on those lands. An important and symbolic event in Australian History history occurred when, during an emotional ceremony in 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured the local sand into Vincent Lingiari's hands and handed the Wave Hill station back to the Gurindji people.

It's a great story - for a precis of it see Paul Kelly's lyrics From Little Things Big Things Grow.

On November 11, 1975, Whitlam's Government was sacked by the then Governor-General (the Queen's representative and Australia's figure head of state) Sir John Kerr. You can read the background andt he lead up to the dismissal here rather than plagerise then entire wikipedia entry.

I believe it was a sad day for Australia but Whitlam had his detractors too. I admire him cause he was gutsy, he wrought sweeping changes to Australia at a time when it was stuck in a parochial, jingoistic furrow and which looked to continue for years had he not stepped up.

Anyway, all that said and done I had the great honour of meeting Mr Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret in the kitchen at Pelligrini's today. Liz introduced me to him, I shook his hand and he smiled at me. I told him, trying hard to sound articulate, that it was an honour to meet him. And it was.

I have in no way done justice to the man but I can only write so much. One of my favorite bands, The Whitlams, went a step further and wrote a song, named themselves after him and brought him to life for a whole new generation.

The only original band member is Tim Freedman. I love his music and his style. Oh, and I met him on Monday as well...


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